In the 2020 season, the NBA was praised for their bubble, where they completed the season with zero COVID-19 infections in the bubble. While a bubble sounds like an effective solution, it's not practical in the long term — which part of the reason why the NBA has introduced COVID-19 detection dogs at games. These dogs are supposedly trained to sniff out COVID, which sounds pretty out there but is in fact a real thing.
A few weeks ago, I got up close and personal with these pups when I was fortunate enough to go to one of the first Miami Heat games with limited fan attendance. Unlike before, when masses of people would swarm and collide on their way into the stadium, the protocol to enter the arena was strict, controlled multi-step process. Prior to my arrival at the game, I'd heard that the stadium would be using new COVID detection dogs for entry, but I was curious to experience it first-hand.
Before I was even screened by the dogs, I was questioned multiple times about possible COVID exposure and symptoms. Next, a group of about 10 people at a time were motioned to arrange in a single file line. We were told to stand still, with our hands to our sides, and to not touch the dogs. A large German Shepherd, leashed by a masked police officer, came running along and grazed against our legs. The dog made a few passes along each person, until he suddenly made a quick and jarring reversal. My heart started to pound and I panicked, wondering if the dog had scented something on me. The large dog ran in my direction but stopped suddenly at the man standing six feet in front of me. The dog circled the man and engaged in a thorough investigative sniff. After about 20 seconds, the dog ran off. We were told everyone was clear and could enter the area.
While waiting in yet another line to have my ticket scanned, I couldn't help but continue to watch the dog at work. The next group of people waited in a line to enter, but this time, the dog began barking and two women were pulled aside and asked to step out of line. A security guard approached them and they were escorted away. I'm not sure if the the women were in fact COVID positive, but they were denied entry based on the dog's detective skills.
The Miami Heat partnered with SNIFF, a startup business utilizing the skills of dogs and their ability to detect the virus, and Global K9 Protection Group to implement this new procedure. While SNIFF has not disclosed how exactly the dogs are trained, or any details on the methods used, their abilities are seeming to be effective. Several studies have been done, though they've been small and done in a controlled environment — meaning nothing is definitive and more research is still needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.
In other areas, dogs have already been proven as an efficient and reliable counterpart to ensure human health and safety. Whether that be detecting seizures, guiding the blind, or assisting with TSA screenings, dogs are already often responsible for ensuring our well-being. It doesn't seem like that much of a stretch to train them to sniff out COVID.
While my experience with the COVID detection dogs felt foreign and a bit dystopian, I do believe they'll become more common. As the world begins to safely reopen and society becomes more comfortable returning to larger gatherings, significant health protocols will be required. Whether it be more COVID detection dogs, or new technology we haven't even heard of yet, it seems safe to say that our "new normal" will be more different than we can imagine.